I'd like to find a contemporaneous review of this book. King toured China, Korea and Japan with an expert eye on their intensive, sustainable agriculture and what seems to me to be a radically approving tone for his day. There were still anti-Chinese settlement laws and riots up and down the West Coast, after all, and was mocking foreign farmers specifically for their prudence and industry. Current reviews of this (it's still in print) are all in the trail of , who approved; I looked it up because of a half-crankish reference in a composting journal.
King, for someone clearly approving, comes across as a transparent, inquisitive author, who must have had a busy translator to extract all the techniques and price-lists and explanations that make it into the book. Mostly, this is a travelogue with 'pods' (in's words) of dense agro-tech exposition hanging off; and many photographs of a startlingly pre-industrial world.
The frame of King's curiosity, though, is his claim--as a Wisconsin professor of agriculture--that the U.S. could not possibly sustain its wasting methods of agriculture, its intentional losses of topsoil and nutrients, and that the Far East had a long history of supporting high populations, and probably knew something we needed. From the Preface (by a Dr
We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favoured peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile and new, and in large acreage for every person. We have really only begun to farm well.
Following, many details of how the fields are leveled, green and muck manures preserved and spread, crops and fallow rotated, irrigation accomplished, markets made. King points out early that the areas around the China Sea are of naturally high productivity, being warm and well-watered (by rain, as well as rivers that bring them silt); but the astounding effort put into farming every square foot, into dredging that silt out of an enormous delta--by human labor--to raise and, indeed, create the land, is no less amazing. King was always happy to notice what clever tricks cycled nutrients, but modern lazy I, I notice that the cleverness usually relies on human effort and a good bit of desperation. There were also devastating famines in China, over those forty centuries. I don't know if they were less common there than in, say, Europe; and this seems crucial to enthusiasm for the book... If we are to consider if this is a good plan for humanity (and many permaculture enthusiasts do), then I want to know how many population crashes that 'sustainability' requires. King quotes an interlocutor saying that in poor years the girl children are sold or given away, which King refuses to believe.
It would be nice to think that we could have a less dense population, and still recycle as intensively, leaving a margin for ourselves and natural systems. It seems unlikely to me. Not just the physical labor, but the constant attention, seem to me to be so extreme that we would not keep them up without a constant fear of personal failure and starvation:
But above any other factor, and perhaps greater than all of them combined in contributing to the high maintenance-efficiency attained in these countries, must be placed the standard of living to which the industrial classes have been compelled to adjust themselves, combined with the most rigorous economy which they practise along every line of effort and of living.
The permaculture doomers assume that we'll have that fear soon enough, and will want to know how to survive; fair enough. Or possibly we will teach our robots to do it for us. Wall-E would have been a much, much better movie had Wall-E found a copy of this book.
Interesting details: comparing the smallest unit of currency, the cash, about 1/1750 of a US dollar at the time, to the smallest unit, used "On the Pacific coast [of the U.S.], where less thought is given to little economies than perhaps anywhere else[...] the nickel". Foot-propelled paddlewheel passenger boats cost less per passenger mile than the US railway tariff. King suggests diverting the lower Mississippi over the "200 miles of country" behind its levees, in order to preserve and increase fertile farmland. "Everywhere we went in China, the labouring people appeared happy and contented, and showed clearly that they were well nourished. The industrial classes are thoroughly organized, having had their guilds or labor unions for centuries." The compost practices were detailed and labor-intensive; Chinese villagers built clamps of mud over aging compost; the Japanese National Department of Agriculture published plans for a handsome stercorary. (It's evident that Japan had more timber than China.) There's a reference to 'parking' but the word means 'making a park of' land, planting trees.
Find in a Library: Farmers of Forty Centuries